e-baby, a new play by Australian journalist and cartoonist Jane Cafarella, does a brilliant job of laying bare the complex issues involved in commercial surrogacy arrangements, even when, as in this story about Australian IM (‘intended mother’) and American surrogate, the two parties share a common language and the best of intentions.
Catherine, vividly portrayed by Carolyn Block, is a 46-year-old lawyer, based in London, who is desperate to have a child but knows her chances are fast running out. ‘My mother told me the house is so quiet after the children leave home,’ she says. ‘Well, it’s also quiet when they never arrive.’ Catherine’s yearning leads her to an agency in the USA and ultimately to a young woman, Nellie — a spirited performance by Sarah Ranken — who agrees to act as surrogate for Catherine and her husband.
The play is told from the two women’s points of view, both actors on stage for the entire performance, monologues alternating with conversations between the two women by phone, Skype, and in person during periodic meetings in New York, where Catherine travels for work. Nellie’s soliloquys often take the form of her video blog posts (‘Follow me at Nellie’s Belly’) as she goes online for advice and reassurance from other surrogates.
One of the most striking scenes takes place when Catherine negotiates ‘the fine print’ of their contract. This includes discussion on what to do if tests reveals foetal abnormalities — Nellie states her opposition, as a Catholic, to abortion — and contingency planning in case of the death of the surrogate mother and/or intended parents. Catherine’s businesslike tone sits uncomfortably with the affective subject matter, paving the way for some heartbreaking decisions that lie ahead.
Catherine is a less sympathetic character than Nellie, and while I felt at times that her character veered towards stereotype as a high-flying career woman and control freak, it’s also a strength of the play that Cafarella doesn’t sugarcoat her. It made me question my own standards in terms of whether a person’s likeability affects the degree to which I take their pain and grief seriously. And there is a moment in the play — a powerful, wordless scene involving a silhouette projected on to boxes — where Catherine’s grief is palpable.
Nellie’s character is a God-fearing, working-class mother, typical of the profile for surrogate mothers in the US. But whether defending her preference for heavy metal music during the birth, trying to keep her family buoyant, or grappling with moral dilemmas, she is shown as competent and nuanced, her faith in ‘God’s plan’ tested by her experience.
For me, e-baby succeeds as a riveting play that doesn’t tell the audience what to think, with an ambivalent ending that befits the subject matter.
Jane Cafarella said in a panel discussion following the session I attended, ‘My intention [in writing this play] was not to say “Think this”, but “Look at this”.’ It is a measure of her success that while one surrogacy abolitionist on the panel saw the play as ‘a strong indictment against surrogacy’, both a woman who had been an altruistic surrogate and an IVF clinician said the play resonated strongly with their experiences.
e-baby is inspired by Cafarella’s experience as a journalist — she was one of the first to interview sisters Maggie and Linda Kirkman, who made history in Australia in 1988 when Linda carried baby Alice for Maggie — particularly by an interview with an expatriate woman in Bangkok, who’d had both her children via a surrogate in the USA. As Cafarella explains on her website,
Intrigued by her story, I spent hundreds of hours reading posts from surrogates and intended parents via online communities.
I found myself drawn into a world with its own language and rules and which challenged the definition of families and motherhood.
It is this world I have tried to portray in e-baby…
Even for those who don’t share my passionate interest in the topic of commercial surrogacy, e-baby is a highly entertaining and provocative play that not only challenges definitions of families and motherhood, but also explores issues of consent and control, generosity and grief, and the limitations of buying power in a world where everything seems at risk of being reduced to markets. Highly recommended.